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Where Are the Women?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Jeffrey Zimmerman
March 3, 2015

Now that we are entering the 15th year of the millennium, the question of “where are the women as leaders in local, state and federal government” is deserving of an answer. I suppose that the quick and easy answer is that they are behind the scenes.

Majority of the time, when a journalist for the newspaper or a cable news anchor is interviewing or quoting a government leader, it is usually a man. Robert P. Watson, Alicia Jencik and Judith A. Selzer articulate in a 2005 Journal of International Women’s Studies article titled “Women world leaders: Comparative analysis and gender experiences,” that historically, just about the only avenue of political influence open to women was spouse hood. Many women in the United States and around the world gained office through what was derogatorily known as the widow’s mandate, whereby a wife of a deceased leader would be appointed to fill her late husband’s term in office.

This theory can be applied to every first lady of the United States. It is presumed that the first lady will push an agenda separate from their husband. Hillary Clinton advocated for universal health care during Bill Clinton’s time in the White House. Michelle Obama has been pursuing healthier meals in our children’s schools during President Obama’s tenure in Washington. Should these women have to operate under the umbrella of their husbands?  I would argue that the short answer to this question is no.

Zimmerman marchWhat professions come to mind when we think about or discuss women as leaders? Health care, education, social services could be a few options. Why is the phenomenon of women leaders a rarity in male dominated fields such as law enforcement, fire services, the military, CEO’s of large corporations and businesses, technology and so on?  Does the answer lie in our beliefs as a society and the way generations are raised to view women?

I can argue that we have all spoken to someone who sternly believes that women should stay at home and take care of the house and children while the man works and provides for the family. I think it is safe to say that this belief system is antiquated especially in the evolving society that we live in today. According to Watson, et.al, over time countless women have led governments, empires, tribes and even armies. They have started and ended wars, governed nobly as well as savagely, and, as has been the case with male leaders, some female leaders have been successful while others were not so successful. Some women leaders from history remain largely unknown and debate continues as to whether or not they actually lived or whether they were the product of myth and legend.

The argument can be made that the time is now for women leaders to cement their roles. People across the world are protesting Islamic terrorism, same sex marriage, police brutality and many other issues. All of the issues that our world is faced with open the door for women to take an active leadership role in addressing the problems of our society. I would argue it’s time for women to lead out in the open as opposed to behind the scenes as it seems to be the case.

The ultimate question that should be answered before we can expect women to be proactive in leading government agencies, private sector organizations, or nonprofit organizations is: Are we as a society ready to dismiss preconceived notions about the roles of women in society and give women leaders the opportunities that men seem to get at a much higher rate to lead?  If our society is ready to remove the beliefs that have been engrained into our culture about the roles of women, then women can be effective leaders in society.

According to John Beeson and Anna Marie Valerio in a 2012 Executive Digest article titled “The executive leadership imperative: A new perspective on how companies and executives can accelerate the development of women leaders,” Managerial skill is viewed as more characteristic of men than of women, and research has shown that people are more resistant to managers’ exerting influence when managers are female than when they are male. To be seen as credible and influential, and gain the cooperation of others, women must be viewed as likable. We have to change the mindset of society so that women leaders will be accepted and followed by subordinates.

Author: Jeffrey R Zimmerman is a public policy and administration Ph.D candidate at Walden University who is currently working on his dissertation titled, “The Impact of Supervisor-Subordinate Exchange on State Government Employees.” Zimmerman currently serves as the director of processing services within the NC Division of Motor Vehicles. I can be reached via email at [email protected] or je[email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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